Letting it Go: Ukraine’s Frozen Future

Secretary of State John Kerry met late yesterday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Though somewhat overshadowed by Kerry’s meetings with Iran, the meeting nonetheless provided some fascinating clues as to where the Ukraine crisis is headed.

First, international tensions over Ukraine seem to be slowly relaxing, although violence continues to mar the ceasefire in the Donbas itself. Russian troops are withdrawing from the border, as specified in the Minsk Protocol. The United States is making encouraging noises about the possibility of sanction removal. More importantly, Kerry made a clear point of emphasizing Russian-American cooperation and announced that the two countries would engage in intelligence sharing on ISIS.  This represents a major about-face for the Obama administration, which just six months ago said its goal was to “isolate President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that faced with the difficulty of managing simultaneous conflicts – something the White House is not good at – officials are opting for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.

Second, Crimea wasn’t mentioned. Though it calls for Ukrainian sovereignty to be respected, the protocol doesn’t explicitly discuss Crimea. In short, it looks like Crimea may be off the negotiating table, effectively ceded to Russia. Instead, the main point of contention between Kerry and Lavrov appears to have been the worry that Ukrainian separatists will hold another referendum on joining Russia, in place of Ukrainian parliamentary elections in late October.

Third, no Ukrainian representatives were present at the meeting, although President Poroshenko is set to meet with Vladimir Putin and several European heads of state tomorrow in Milan. Ukraine is struggling to fund its fight against the separatists, and international assistance is drying up. If Ukraine is being edged out of the process, it would be extremely bad for them, but could be positive for the United States, which gains little from a protracted cold war-style stand-off with Russia.

So where does this leave us? Distracted by developments in the Middle East, America seems content to let the status quo triumph in Ukraine, turning the dispute into a fairly typical post-Soviet frozen conflict, like those found in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Crimea would remain a de facto but unrecognized part of Russia, while Donetsk and Luhansk would be part of Ukraine in name only. Low levels of conflict will continue, but as long as Russia doesn’t get involved, the international community will likely ignore it. This outcome is probably the best that Russia could hope for, as it has the secondary advantage of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union.

But while a diplomatic solution in Ukraine is wise, it shouldn’t be allowed to metastasize into a frozen conflict. As we saw in Georgia in 2008, these situations are inherently unstable and have the potential to spring back to life unexpectedly. For the sake of long-term stability, it would be better to negotiate now a more long-lasting deal between Russia and Ukraine, one which provides for substantial autonomy of the disputed regions within a Ukrainian federal structure.